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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Title: Vanitas
Date: ca. 1650
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: Image: 35 x 45 inches (88.9 x 114.3 cm); Frame (slightly irregular): 48 1/4 × 58 3/8 × 4 inches (122.6 × 148.3 × 10.2 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Louis V. Keeler, Class of 1911, and Mrs. Keeler, by exchange
Object Number: 86.006
Label Text: The Leiden painter David Bailly was one of the best practitioners of that subset of the still life genre known as the vanitas. This was a category of paintings which used groupings of objects to comment on the fleeting nature of human endeavors, remind viewers that human life is transitory, and encourage piety. The painting is shot through with references to time—the sundial, the pocket watch, the hourglass—as well as objects that signal the vanity of music, gambling, learning, and even painting itself. Of course, the centrally placed skull serves as a memento mori, a reminder of the omnipresence of death.

The way the objects are chosen and arranged in this still life betrays a common thought process with the way that Dutch and other European collectors built and displayed cabinets of curiosities like the one re-created in the exhibition. The hyperrealism with which objects of various textures, sizes, and colors are rendered in this painting allows them to be identified, but also to be compared aesthetically and new connections to be drawn among them. For example, the statue of the cherub, seen next to the palette and brushes, stands for the art of sculpture. Considered instead with the skull, however, from which the figure seems to dramatically turn away, the sculpture is a meditation on the fleeting nature of youth. (Andrew C. Weislogel, “The New and Unknown World: Art, Exploration, and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age,” catalogue accompanying an exhibition organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, curated by Andrew C. Weislogel and presented at the Johnson Museum August 13–October 2, 2011)


This painting is an unusually large and splendid example of the vanitas still life. Vanitas, in Latin, refers to the "vanity" of all worldly things, such as riches, beauty, pastimes, learning, and the arts. In this painting by David Bailly, a Dutch artist who worked in Leiden, where Rembrandt was born, the skull in the center reminds us of the vanity of music (the lute and flute), the visual arts (the palette and brushes and the small sculpture), the pleasures of the flesh (dice, cards, pipe, and tobacco), learning (books), and natural beauty (flowers). The hourglass, sundial, and guttering candle all emphasize the passing of time; the rising bubbles epitomize the fragility of life; the barely legible letter beneath the skull refers to death and war; and the black servant, elegantly dressed and with a gold chain (symbolizing loyalty) around his neck, is one more accouterment of a wealth that must inevitably pass away. The servant holds a miniature portrait of the (unknown) patron who commissioned the painting, appropriately small, to indicate his lack of pretension and rejection of ostentation. (From “A Handbook of the Collection: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art," 1998)

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.